You’ve achieved some success in your dressage tests, and now you are ready to move up a level. You read your first test sheet preparatory to a trial run and you notice it calls for collected canter.
What exactly is ‘collected’ canter, and how do you ride it?
Read on to find out.
What is a collected canter?
Collection refers to differences in:
- Stride length (shorter)
- Stride height (taller)
- Overall balance – with more weight clearly distributed to the hindquarters rather than the shoulders
- A shorter, taller outline as a result of the above change in weight distribution (i.e., not because you’ve just shortened the reins and pulled the neck higher).
Before you start to panic, please understand this about collection in a dressage test – the degree of collection required at a specific level is only so much as to be able to perform the required movement with ease.
So at the lower levels when collection is first introduced, that’s not much.
All the judge is looking for is that the horse can bring his weight enough off his shoulders to be able to, for example, perform a 10-meter circle without struggling, or make a downward transition from canter to walk (as in a simple change) without pitching forward and putting all his weight onto either his front feet or the reins.
As you progress further up the levels, you should be able to produce a little more collection – enough to show movements like shoulder in, half pass, and travers with reasonable ease and engagement.
The higher the level, the higher the degree of collection required, until at the top levels you have enough to produce, for example, a canter pirouette in balance and with visible ease.
So DO NOT try to cram your horse together between stronger hands and legs to find shorter steps – that’s NOT what collection is about; it is the gradual development of the ability and strength to carry more weight behind and less on the shoulders, with the above differences as a consequence of collection, and not the other way around.
How do I ride collected canter?
Before you can attempt to collect your horse’s canter, you need some pre-requisites firmly in place:
- He must be working correctly over a rounded and supple top line with
- A genuine acceptance of the contact and
- An understanding of the half-halt
He must also be:
- Physically strong enough in his musculature
- Mentally relaxed and attentive
- Responsive to your aids
- Already working in a reasonable balance
When you have these components in place, it is simply a matter of strengthening him further and teaching him to accept a new balance, by working on smaller patterns (like 10-meter circles), counter canter, and direct transitions, and using half-halts to suggest he stays up off his shoulders while you perform them.
Do not artificially raise his head and neck – that will have the opposite effect (dropping his withers) – but simply keep his front end where it is and ask his hind end (with your driving aids) to step more under, without allowing his frame to lengthen.
Then, when you travel forward out of the movement, again, suggest to him that he remains in that same, new, balance, by not allowing his front end to drop down, and supporting his stepping under behind with your driving aids.
Note on driving aids – Remember that your legs create impulsion (activity and stepping under) while your SEAT determines the length of stride. So to find collection, you need to be using quick (not strong) leg aids, to keep his hind legs stepping briskly forward under, but a SMALL seat action (to keep the stride length small), so he does not misinterpret your drive as an instruction to go forward into medium or extended strides.
Collection should be thought of as a rebalancing of the weight carriage towards the haunches, and NOT as a shortening of the stride.
The shorter, higher steps of collection are the RESULT of that re-balancing.
Shortening the strides artificially will result in stiffening and loss of activity, which is exactly what the judges do not want to see.